Underworld: Blood Wars Review

The first movie I ever watched with my still-best friend (hi Travis!) was Underworld. This was back in 2003 when we were both freshman in high school and, by all accounts, a pair of immature idiots. Werewolves fighting vampires? Hell yes. When Underworld: Evolution came out three years later, it became a three-city spanning pilgrimage to find a theater that would let our underage selves in.

We did, by the way. We had to drive almost an hour away, but we found a place that would let us in.

Each new sequel saw us in the theater day one, ready to watch Kate Beckinsale as Selene destroy werewolves, humans, and vampires in showers of blood and gore, and after each film we would leave going, “That was the best movie ever made!” for a full two hours before reality set in. Alcohol was always involved.

Underworld: Blood Wars broke the tradition. Travis is now stationed in Louisiana, and I’m…well, an adult. My tastes have changed. My standards have gotten higher, and I’ve been sober all day. But I’ll be damned—and I type this with a grin—I still hold the same adoration for this series that I did when I was a freshman in high school.

I was unironically and very legitimately excited to see this movie.

Our quick plot summary is this: The werewolves have once again regrouped and are hoping to wipe the vampires out for good. They’re after Selene’s daughter, Eve because her hybrid blood will grant them superpowers, and they need Selene to get to her. The vampires, meanwhile, are after Selene for a handful of reasons, half of which aren’t in her favor because she has a pretty turbulent past with other vampires.

Queue chase sequences, backstabbing, and a heaping pile of violence.

As a fifth installment, Underworld: Blood Wars has a large amount of continuity and lore to work with. This works both in its favor and in its detriment, though perhaps more to the latter than the former. Michael is still gone, and Selene’s daughter Eve is as well. The movie has to jump through a handful of hard-to-buy plot loops to make this work, especially since everyone is after both characters. It’s a grail quest with no grail at the end.

But more than that, the movie really does cherry pick what it wants to keep and what it wants to ignore. Plot points from Underworld: Awakening are brought up, yet the elephant in the room is not. What of the human purge on all vampire and werewolf kind? We went from underground covens and near extinction to gothic mansions and gross levels of wealth seemingly overnight, and that just doesn’t make any sense.

Selene too has gone through some major character development off screen. She’s so gung-ho about killing werewolves in all the other movies that it borderlines on psychopathy, but we start Blood Wars with her sick of violence and sick of living too. That’s a big character change, and one I’d have liked to see. It’s not that I don’t buy it either, but I have a feeling that that journey was more interesting than the one presented in this movie.

Meanwhile, the vampires and werewolves are still at war with each other, and at this point I can only wonder why. Victor is dead. Marcus is dead. Lucian is dead. The key people who started the war some fifteen hundred years ago are no longer around, and I’d say it’s time to let bygones be bygones. There’s no reason to continue fighting other than tradition and spite.

Underworld: Blood Wars isn’t interested in moving on though. It isn’t interested in introspection, either. It has the word “war” in its title, and plot progression and character development be damned, it’s going to deliver on that.

It does.

Similar to Evolution and Awakening, Blood Wars is using its plot as a justification for action. There are a lot of characters at play here (and more moving parts than any of the previous movies), but it’s all to arrive at bloodshed. Our new vampires are taken right out of the first movie, with their snooty politics and plays at power, while our new werewolves are of the Awakening variety: smarter, bigger, and seemingly endless. It’s not a particularly new combination of ingredients, but it’s still fun all the same. The series knows what does and doesn’t work.

As far as new characters go, they’re about what you’d expect from an Underworld movie. Other than Selene and David, we aren’t really supposed to like or sympathize with any of the vampires, and other than Marius, none of the werewolves are even named.

It’s a funny thing, really. Underworld has always played both sides as flawed and at fault, but other than Rise of the Lycans, the movies break their backs to make the vampires out to be the good guys. If I sympathize with zero of our new vampire cast and also know that once upon a time, they kept all the werewolves in thrall, why should I want them to win?

Because at this point, not even Selene cares who wins or loses.

This reduces Blood Wars to a war movie of fodder fighting fodder with Selene and David along for the ride. The thing is, I don’t really know if this is a flaw or not. I’m only here for Selene, David, and our third character, violence. All three deliver.

It’s Selene’s endless supply of bullets; it’s Marius throwing vampires through walls; and it’s David’s blood-drenched sword that brought me back to my freshman self. The fight sequences here are many, and all of them are damn fun. Both of Selene’s bouts with Marius alone made the ticket price worthwhile, and hell, Marius and David shooting four clips into each other only to sweat the bullets out seconds later did too.

It’s not intellectually stimulating by any means, but it is fucking awesome and that has to count for something.

To the movie’s credit, it does expand upon the Underworld lore. There’s a new faction of vampires introduced around the middle of the flick, and they bring with them some light fantasy elements that really do add to the overall package. They also raise some interesting questions about death and the afterlife, which is more thoughtful than this series has ever gone. Of course, they also provide a ton more fodder for the inevitable werewolf invasion, which is, let’s face it, their primary purpose. It’s a war, remember?

Evenso, Blood Wars is a movie that I can confidently say gets better as it goes. The stakes don’t ever get any higher, but the battles and world both get bigger. Like I said, the series knows what does and doesn’t work.

And I have to give some mad respect for the sound engineers behind this movie. Everything sounds great, from the very loud, very punchy bullets to the numerous amounts of skin ripping. Everything feels so visceral and meaty, like in Gears of War 2 when you have to chop apart that giant worm from the inside. Each kill is so satisfying.

I hate to be that guy that gives a stupid movie a pass because it’s fun, but really, if you’re going to see an Underworld movie, your expectations are already set. I was excited for this movie because I was excited for more Underworld, and Underworld: Blood Wars is just that, only a bit bigger and flashier for the effort.

I had a blast.

My Top Ten Albums of 2016

Well, 2016 has been a year. I’ll avoid the stuff Charlie Brown’s Linus van Pelt says not to talk about and jump into music, because politics aside, it’s been a crazy year for music. I discovered so many bands! Veldes, Avantasia, Shadow of Intent, Moonsorrow, Septic Flesh, Lamb of God, Soar, Dissection, Delain, Sonata Artica, The Wagaki Band, Chthonic…the list could probably go on. Some of my most-anticipated albums came out this year, and some of them were amazing! Some were also not amazing.

2016 strikes in more than one way.

Concert wise, I’ve seen four of my five favorite bands live: Nightwish, Five Finger Death Punch, Shinedown, and Bobaflex. I also got to see Deff Leppard, Delain, Sonata Artica, Hed P.E. Powerman 5000, REO Speedwagon, Sixx. a.m. Slipknot, Disturbed, Beartooth, Nothing More, Another Lost Year, and a darn good few others that I can’t recall off the top of my head.

In that respect, 2016 couldn’t bring me down at all. Do you know how crazy Slipknot were live? Like, all of the crazy!

So let’s stick with positivity and jump into my top-ten albums of 2016! This list is…well, it’s a list!
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10 Korn — The Serenity of Suffering

Genre: Nu Metal

Perhaps the craziest thing about 2016 is that it got me excited for a new Korn album. Do you know how long it’s been since that happened? Like a decade! But I’m an adult that isn’t in middle school, and Goddamn, Korn put out an album that’s awesome. It’s got everything I want from them, from the scat singing to the crunchy riffage to the angsty lyrics.

It appeals to me on so many nostalgic levels, yet it’s also just good. It’s catchy as all hell, catchy as all hell, and also catchy as all hell. Also, it’s Korn without the electronic gimmicks from their last few efforts. That means…that means so much. You have no idea.

Standout tracks are “Rotting in Vain,” “When You’re Not There,” and “Everything Falls Apart.”

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09 Amaranthe – Maximalism

Genre: ???

Amaranthe are a band I discovered early in 2015 and fell in love with because they’re a strange mess of noise. They have three vocalist: A pop singer, a rock singer, and a metal growler, and they mix pop-rock with straight metal. I don’t know what they are, but I love their sound. It’s different. It’s everything I want in music, really.

Their new effort is more of the same in that regard, with huge pop songs that pack on the metal grit. It’s a sing-along affair that turns into a scream-along, and you don’t really know where one part begins and another ends. It might also get you dancing and headbanging at the same time. It’s not every day an album will get both of those things out of me.

Not that I should dance. I suck at dancing.

Standout tracks are “Boomerang,” “On the Rocks,” and “Limitless.”

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08 All Hail the Yeti – Screams from a Black Wilderness

Genre: Death Metal…?

All Hail the Yeti are the only band I know that can do horror lyrics and not sound like cartoons. Cannibal Corpse and Infant Annihilator bring on the gore, yet they do so with a cheesy shine that kind of hurts the overall package. Yeti? They’ll do up death, torture, and the apocalypse with the brutal salesmanship of a person promising a cure to cancer yet giving you snake oil.

Screams from a Black Wilderness is their sophomore effort, and in that respect, is much more refined than their former. That’s neither a condemnation nor a praise; just a fact. It flows better, and it has a hair less grit than their self-titled, yet it also packs one hellova punch. The songs are driving forces, the kind that make you want to go fight someone because anger is anger and you’re angry! They make you want to chant and scream too, because all good music makes you want to do those things, and this is good music.

Standout tracks include, “Witch is Dead,” “Before the Flames,” and “Daughter of the Morning Star.”

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07 Thomas Rakowitz – The Musings of Balance

Genre: Hard Rock

Full discolor: Thomas Rakowtiz is a good friend of mine. Full disclosure: The Musings of Balance is a killer record.

The Musings of Balance probably has my favorite guitar work of any album released in 2016. Every track is different and flavorful, yet every track has that brutal riffage that you want from this brand of hard rock. It makes you want to mosh like a crazy person, and it makes you want to sing along while you do so. The vocal melodies are catchy!

Thomas mixes clean singing with death growls like a pro, and he layers them over just the best guitar work. It’s insane. Lyrically, he knows how to channel the things that keep him up at night, both good and bad. Musically, well musically it’s a bit of everything. There’s a goddamn bull-fighting song on this thing! Color it surprising, and use a black marker while you do so.

Standout tracks are “The End of it All,” “Frantic,” and “The Illusion.”

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06 Six a.m. – Prayers for the Damned

Genre: Rock

This isn’t the first time Six a.m. have made my top-ten list, and given their track record, it won’t be the last. They do rock like rock needs to be done: catchy, hard, and awesome. Prayers for the Damned is a harder version of their sound, bringing the big guitars and the fast vocals without any letup. There are no ballads here.

It’s awesome.

The album does get some bonus points for their live performance, which was killer as all hell, but really, if you’re into rock, this is the prime example of it. It’s got just a bit of classic flair to entice all walks of life, but the gut-punch we all want and need from new-timey music.

And I dare you to try and not sing along while this album is going. Try. Just try. You’ll fail as miserably as I do, because I suck at singing and shouldn’t try at all. This album gets me to try though, and it’s always a blast.

Standout tracks are “Belly of the Beast,” “When We Were Gods,” and “Can’t Stop.”

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05 Delain – Moonbathers

Genre: Symphonic Metal

So I’m basically going to jump for joy if you’re either symphonic metal or folk metal, and this is the former. Happy day there, because Nightwish need to have some supplements for the years they don’t release an album. Queue Delain!

Delain are some prime-time symphonic metal, yet they have some subtle twists. I find that Moonbathers comes and goes when it comes to the symphony; it’s either very prominent or in the background. When it’s prominent, it’s the swelling sound we all hope and want, yet when it’s in the background, well, that’s when the guitars and drums just explode.

Mix that with some amazing vocals and even more amazing vocal melodies, and you have an album that I have not been able to stop listening to. Bonus points for Delain being phenomenal live. And they were an opening band! How the hell were they an opening band? They make most closing acts look like chump change.

Standout tracks are “Hands of Gold,” “The Glory and the Scum,” and “Dance Macabre.”

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04 Gorjia – Magma

Genre: Death Metal

I’m tempted to just write, “It’s Gojira and Gojira can do no wrong,” because that’s probably the truest thing that’s been said this year. However, Gojira didn’t just do no wrong here; they did amazing. Magma is the only death metal album I’d call gorgeous. Seriously, this is pretty death metal! How is that even possible?

Magma is when you take pure, pure sorrow and put it to music. It’s when you take the frustration of death and just yell at it, yet it’s also what you do when you’re done yelling. There are real moments of contemplation here, of deep introspection on life and loss. It’s brilliant.

It’s also an album that takes the band away from their norm with quite a bit of clean vocals. Yeah. Gojira with clean vocals. Holy hell. Yet they work! At first they seem monotonous, almost in the background, yet the more you listen, the more they jive perfectly with what the record wants. They’re this sad, pretty drone, and they make this album something special.

Standout tracks are “Low Lands,” “Stranded,” and “Silvera.”

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03 Moonsorrow – Jumalten Aika

Genre: Black Metal

Perhaps my favorite thing about 2016 is that it taught me that black metal can be amazing. At one point I wrote the genre off, and then Moonsorrow came along and slapped me upside the head with a gorgeous, atmospheric, and heavy album about gods and man.

It’s also in Finnish.

Juamlen Aika is one of two 2016 albums I’d call epic. Of the five tracks, four are over ten minutes long and two boarder on fifteen minutes. The whole package is a bit over an hour, yet the variety here is off the charts. The songs move in this glorious, unpredictable way, going from heavy riffs to soft keyboards and other classical instruments. The album keeps you on your toes in this tense way, yet it also asks you to relax, to sit back and enjoy.

Lyrically, the album is awesome (assuming you’re willing to check the booklet. The whole thing is in Finnish, but that really only adds to it. The vocals become another instrument, a distorted wail that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go at all. It’s so awesome!)

Standout tracks are “Jumaltin Aika,” “Ihmisen Aika,” and “Ruttoleto sis. Paivattoman Paivan Kansa.”

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02 Avantasia – Ghostlights

Genre: Power Metal

Ghostlights came out sometime in January and remained my favorite album for most of the year. It’s a massive concept album about a guy journeying into the afterlife and finding God, and it’s nothing short of amazing. I cannot get over how phenomenal the guitar work is here, and I cannot get over how just…epic this piece is! Every song has at least one guest vocalist because Avantasia isn’t a band; it’s an event.

It’s also the pinnacle of power metal.

This isn’t cheesy stuff, and this isn’t repetitive riffage. It’s plain glory from start to finish, the kind of songs I want to belt out but cannot because my range is like three and a half notes. It’s smart and awesome and will not leave your head until you hit the repeat button in a failed attempt at purging such amazing notes. Even then, you might as well toss a coin, because you’re probably screwed.

You cannot make music this awesome go away! And you shouldn’t want to either!

Standout tracks include “Master of the Pendulum,” “Ghostlights,” and “Draconian Love.”

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01 Sully Erna – Hometown Life

Genre: ???

Back in 2014 when I did my first top-ten music list, I said that I was a massive fanboy of Godsmack. That fanboyism includes their front man, Sully Erna. I kind of want to marry his voice.

Avalon was my favorite album for a good many years until I discovered Wintersun, and even then, it still remains my second favorite album. It’s goddamn perfection, and as luck would have it, so is Hometown Life. Blending five or six different genres—including jazz!—Hometown Life is half a love-letter to music and half a love-letter to personal triumphs and failures.

It’s such an interesting album to listen to, because on one hand it’s a biography of Sully Erna himself, on another it’s a message to his children, and on a third (because this monster has three hands) it’s open to interpretation. As an English major, it’s basically a wet dream I can throw into my ears.

Wow. That sounded strange.

What doesn’t sound strange is this album though (saved!). It’s a little bit country, a little bit alternative, a little bit jazz, a little bit soul, a little bit rock, and a little bit tribal. It might have bits and pieces of other genres too, because it’s just that kind of record. Sometimes Sully has half a symphony behind him, and sometimes he’s playing a piano. Sometimes that happens in the same song.

And all the while, it’s mixed wonderfully, vocally impressive, and makes you want to weep or dance.

Standout tracks are “Your Own Drum,” “Turn it Up,” and “Forever my Infinity.”

We Are the Ocean Born

Hey, have some more Vitrerran music why don’tcha!

So, this song is the main theme for The Scarfoam Coast, or our water area. I was trying to channel my inner Alestorm, and while I probably missed that mark by a wide margin, I am happy with what I got going here. This song was super fun to make!

What sets this one apart, I guess, is that it uses a new plugin called Sakura. Well, not “new” to the world but new to Dual Wield Software. It came with some awesome strings, including the violin and guitars you here in this song. I finally have an upright bass, guys. You have no idea how happy that makes me. Got a wicked nice harp too.

Pretty sure the Greyjoys liked to go “we are the iron born,” so that’s where the title is coming from. I’m finding it harder to pun off of A Song of Ice and Fire things as I make more tunes. I haven’t read the books in a very long time.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

2016 has been what I’d call a messy year, but at least we’re getting more Harry Potter. If there’s a consolation prize to be had, it’s that. However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t Harry Potter. It’s its own thing, and we all knew that going in, even if we hoped otherwise. It’s a strange kind of disappointment, because it’s our own fault even if we don’t want to admit it.

Or I’m massively projecting. Either way, the movie is pretty good, but you know, not amazing because it isn’t Harry Potter.

I’ve seen Fantastic Beasts’ plot broken down into a comparison of Dr. Who and Pokemon; however, I don’t really agree. There are some beasts that need finding, but five is a far cry from 150. Fantastic Beasts is far more concerned with world building. America’s wizarding world has its own rules, Aurors, president, and a mounting tension between wizards and Muggles. It doesn’t help that the threat of Grindelwald is looming heavy over everything. In many respects, Newt Scamander and his beasts are simply along for the ride.

Fantastic Beasts is a movie that tries to do too much with too little time. There’s a reason fantasy works better in novel formats: The world building requires pages of space to work with. Hogwarts took thick books to feel real, and New York’s wizarding world feels like it needs the same treatment. Sadly, it doesn’t get pages but a few hours of our time, and that time is heavily split between America, Newt, and a few minor subplots involving a crazy, abusive orphanage of sorts. We can’t have a Harry Potter anything without some child abuse!

Other than the child abuse subplot–which, if nothing else, turns into some cool world building/lore–the two big story elements could be the main focus of the movie with nothing lost. A razor-sharp look at Newt and his animals would have made for an amazing ride of whimsy and awe while a movie about the American wizarding world by itself could have been a breathtaking journey into a new world that’s both familiar and not.

Instead we get both, and the movie  is a bit muddled for it. Thankfully, it isn’t muddled in the same way Warcraft is; I’ve come away here wanting more, not less, but it still detracts some. Had this story been a book, we could have easily had both plots and then some. In a way, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of a traditional Harry Potter flick: absolutely serviceable and fun but with a few too many cuts to feel like that 100% adaptation I want.

And for a movie titled Fantastic Beasts, they really do get waysided. The ones we do see are great, but most show up once as spectacle only to never return. The few that return do so in a Batman-styled utility belt kind of way, “Well this monster can do this to save us from this jam,” before going back to the belt.

It’s not like this is a bad thing though. It’s the beasts themselves that provide the most whimsy and potential for jaw-drops, and each is stunning in its own right. Seeing them move and interact with Newt really made this movie feel like a piece of the Harry Potter world, but a movie titled fantastic beasts should have more focus on them.

Once again, too much to do in not enough space.

If there is another problem, it’s Newt Scamader himself. As a character, he’s more quirks than actual development, making him entertaining for the first leg of the movie and somewhat boring by the end. He’s the guy that likes animals more than people, but we’re never given any reason as to why. There are hints, but without some solid background information, he’s just an eccentric in an eccentric world.

Meanwhile, we have terrorism, child abuse, shady politics, and the threat of open war between wizards and Muggles going on, and I’ll be damned, that seems more interesting.

Thankfully Newt’s two cohorts are far more worthwhile. Jacob Kowalski is a Muggle who bumps into Newt and makes the classic briefcase swap. When animals escape and start rampaging, Jacob gets wrapped up into the wizarding world. He acts as the perfect viewer cipher, going from bewildered and unsure to absolutely delighted. My reactions were pretty much on point with his from start to finish.

But the best part about Jacob is that he’s given very relatable fears and goals. While Newt is stuck in animal wonderland, Jacob wants to open a bakery because he hates working at a canning factory. That’s it. It’s that simple, and it’s in that simplicity that makes Jacob an amazing character to follow. I cared about him throughout the flick, because I sympathized with him. He makes sense.

He’s also completely adorable.

Tina Goldstein is our third hero, a down-on-her-luck Auror who is trying to make up for some past mistakes. Like Jacob, she’s not terribly complicated, and like Jacob, that works in her favor. She really just wants her job back and the respect that comes with it, and what starts as a simple arrest turns into a complete disaster for her and the rest of New York.

Fantastic Beasts falls into an interesting area because Hogwarts is half a world away and all of the characters are adults. The movie is also a few decades in the past, taking place long before Harry Potter was ever born. Yet we aren’t looking at a prequel but a compendium to the wizarding world as a whole, a piece of world building, but for the wrong continent. This is the story of the author of one textbook used for one semester in Hogwarts.

None of that is bad. Hell, in a way it’s all for the best. We all know what happened when Star Wars was given its direct prequels, and we’re all still actively trying to forget those movies. I’d be upset if Rowling approached Harry Potter in a way that was directly tied to Harry because his story is over. It’s fine to let a franchise end where it’s supposed to. It’s why I haven’t picked up The Cursed Child and have no intention of doing so.

That being said, I suppose now that I have my cake, I want to eat it too. My favorite parts of this movie were the nods to the main series as a whole, such as the namedrop of Hogwarts, Newt’s use of the word, “Muggle,” and of course, Grindelwald as the big menace hiding in the background. Let’s be frank here: We all know why we’re going to go see this movie, regardless of reviews or expectations.

It’s more Harry Potter… even if it isn’t.

On Writing My Third Novel

Back in August, I wrote a short essay titled, “Permission to Fail,” where I vented about writing and editing my second novel which concluded with me hinting at starting a third novel. I then went on a 100-day break of no blog posts.

Gee, I wonder what I was doing!

I finished the first draft of Toyland sometime last week. It measures almost 75,000 words and, as far as first drafts go, is a complete mess. Good god the amount of work I’ll have to put into this thing to get it into shape is staggering. Continuity errors, continuity errors everywhere! Not to mention the slipups in writing, the overly-long action sequences that are hard to follow, and the immature level of cursing that goes on.

Seriously. I think I drop over a 100 fuck bombs in this one. I haven’t counted yet because I’m afraid to.

Before I continue, here’s a quick-and-dirty plot summary of Toyland:

BP6 is the sixth pawn in the black kingdom. He’s a chess piece, and he hates being a chess piece. It’s a pretty shitty gig, so he spends his free time snorting sugar, drinking soda, and sexually harassing Darbie Dolls as a way to forget how much he hates himself. Things change when he drunkenly sneaks into a G.I. base and steals a top-secret weapon that’s actually just a lighter.

BP6 takes this weapon back to his kingdom, lights everyone he hates on fire, and then proceeds to go on a drunken rampage through Toyland. His long-time friend John (G.I. John instead of G.I. Joe because trademarks) is after him, but it doesn’t take long for half of Toyland to join in the hunt. This is a weapon that works!

The novel itself is one parts action, one parts dark comedy, and maybe six parts existential angst. Much like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story movie, all of the toys in Toyland think they are real save BP6. BP6, however, is ill equipped to handle the realization that he’s not real, so he turns to violence and drugs.If he isn’t real, then neither is anyone else and who cares who dies?

It’s a strange, strange novel.

The ideas behind Toyland are old. I created the basic premise somewhere around 2011 when I was working a job I loathed and wished I could burn the place to the ground. I felt like a pawn. It was then that I wrote the first line to the novel, one I’ve been carrying around for five years:

The plastic man in army fatigues walked through the cardboard castle.

See, BP6 isn’t really the main character, his friend John is. John’s the one who has to come to terms with the fact that his best friend is a monster, that the army he trusts keeps dark secrets, and that Toyland isn’t what he’s been lead to believe it is. There are monsters out there.

Or that was the idea. As it turned out, there are four main characters in this novel: BP6, John, Frank (he’s a Viper Commando), and White Knight 2.

This was a delightful surprise at first. The best part about writing is the discovery; however, the worst part about writing is the discovery. I wrote myself into more complex situations than a dumb book about a pissed off talking toy really needs, and juggling multiple characters isn’t exactly easy. I don’t know how George R. R. Martin does it.

Each character winds up meeting more characters as the story goes on, so what started with four people wound up turning into over 20. John has three squadmates, Frank has three squadmates, and both BP6 and WK2 find all sorts of crazy folk on the floor of Toyland. Then there are the main villains, a Mega Brick Kingpin that I based off of Samuel L Jackson, a depressed underground railroad train that was built under the ground and can’t escape, and a pet lizard that showed up out of goddamned nowhere. Seriously Casey, why?

There are characters I created to move the plot along assuming they’d offer some exposition or direction that wound up living all the way to the end. Because writing is about discovery, and that’s a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t kind of game.

It was fun though. My biggest worry about writing is that it’ll turn into a chore, that I’ll get used to it and start going through the motions. This book though, this book was damn fun to write. I got to create the most bizarre, stupid world of my writing life thus far, and that’s saying something as I’ve written high fantasy.

I have fight sequences where transforming robots are trying to take a water fountain so they can steal water balloons, and I have another fight sequences that takes place inside a giant Mega Brick city. Think The Lego Movie but with more dismemberment and swearing.

Almost all the characters are out of their minds in some way, too.

If I learned anything, it’s that the reasons I enjoy writing haven’t changed. Discovery is fun, and outlining ruins that. I did almost zero planning for this book, and yeah it threw me into some really hard directions to work with, but it was always fun. I’ll fix the problems later.

I also learned that keeping a sheet of notes as you go is as necessary as ever, even if I once again didn’t do that. Old habits die hard. Less also continues to be more, adverbials are still the devil, and describing a stuffed animal burning to death is a lot harder than it sounds.

Toyland did mark the first book that I shopped ideas with a writing circle. I’ve stumbled upon a few places via Facebook and Neogaf this year, and they really proved their worth. I never asked for feedback on wording, paragraphs, or chapters, but going, “Hey what if” wound up being super valuable.

Corners are easier to navigate out of when you have outside perspective.

I don’t know what will happen with this book when it’s done. I also don’t know if this blog post has any value other than my own self wanking. Regardless, I hope there’s entertainment to be found somewhere, because while fun is the first rule, I try to make entertainment the second. I’ve read too many bad books to not want to at least be entertaining.

Derek Kent’s Kubrick’s Game Review

Reviewers Note: My copy of Kubrick’s Game was supplied by the author. The novel releases September 26th, 2016 and can be preordered here

I don’t normally do log lines, but since Derek Taylor Kent’s newest novel is about movies, I think it’s fitting. Kubrick’s Game is Ready Player One written by Dan Brown…but about Kubrick movies instead of 1980’s pop culture. Here’s the thing though: I don’t like Ready Player One or Dan Brown. The former has maybe four good ideas executed in the worst way possible and the latter is a gimmick writer at best.

So when I say Kubrick’s Game is better than both, know that the bar isn’t set all that high.

Let’s get the basic plot out of the way. Shawn is a twenty-something in film school with a crush on his TA. He’s on the autism spectrum. His tick is movies. He especially loves Kubrick, and when his school is given a puzzle to solve—by the late Kubrick himself—he and his two friends are scooped up as major players. Of course, the puzzle turns out to be dangerous because what’s a book without a little danger?

The core of Kubrick’s Game is its puzzle, or its series of puzzles. Similar to Ready Player One which had a large quest embedded in 1980’s trivia, this book has its quest split through every Kubrick movie. All of the little flaws and debates the world has been having since Spartacus through Eyes Wide Shut were released are here, and the longer the book goes on, the more deliberate all those supposed flaws appear to be.

It’s honestly brilliant. I know a bit about Kubrick, enough to enjoy his movies, and I was nodding most of the way. It all fits together shockingly well, made better with captioned pictures from the movies. This book doesn’t just tell you how this works; it shows you. It’s a wonderful piece of movie history, of research, and of intertextual criticism. I cannot fathom how much work went into this book. (I mostly don’t want to because it would give me a headache.)

Plus, it’ll make you appreciate Kubrick on a whole ‘nother level. I have to rewatch A Clockwork Orange now. And all of his other movies, if I’m being honest.

I wonder…I wonder if this book would have been better served as a Holy Blood; Holy Grail type story. For those who don’t know, that’s the book that Dan Brown damn near plagiarized when he wrote The Da Vinci Code. It’s a long piece of “nonfiction” about Jesus and what The Bible doesn’t tell you, and you can find snippets of it on Google Books if you’re bored.

This book could have been that. Keep the research, keep the links between all the movies, and alter the agenda slightly. If Mr. Kent really wanted to, he could have convinced us all that Kubrick filmed [insert one of a thousand conspiracy theories here].

Speaking of which, this novel is loaded to the brim with conspiracy theories. I’m not a fan, meaning my eyes were rolling more than they should have been. They do somewhat fit here given Kubrick’s use of illuminati and freemason imagery, but I half check out when either show up regardless of context.

I don’t want to say it’s the characters that lessen this book, because they don’t. Honestly, all of them are fine and flawed in believable/interesting ways. Shawn is obsessed with making movies on a technical level because he doesn’t understand the emotional significance of them, Wilson is a has-been child actor who wants to be a director, and Sami is the aforementioned TA who doesn’t like Shawn in any romantic way whatsoever. They’re all fine. Hell, the idea of someone who only wants to know how movies are made technically is actually a great struggle because most of us watch them to be entertained and spoken to emotionally. He’s operating on a level I cannot fathom, and it’s handled well.

But the novel itself feels like it’s going through the motions most of the time. The plot speeds along at a fine pace as we hit the obligatory action and relationship drama needed to make a YA novel a YA novel. When I say this book is like Ready Player One, it’s because it hits almost all of those story beats. It’s actually a little boring.

It doesn’t help that just like in Ready Player One, there are long conversations about Kubrick movies that feel more like essays than plot progression.

The action and relationship drama break up the mystery and long essays on film theory, but neither are what I’d call realistic. The first handful of action sequences work, and I suppose they’re fun, but as the stakes ramp up and dangerous people bring out guns and knives, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was calling the cops. By the final, climactic “fight,” realism is all but gone as gangsters are tackled and their guns are dropped.

The relationship drama is a bit trickier, because half of it makes sense given the context of Shawn as a character; however, I still didn’t care for it. It only ever came off as a distraction, and most of the big drama comes directly from Shawn saying or doing something stupid. I recall one scene that had me cringe so hard I almost stopped reading the book altogether.

Kubrick’s Game is a hard book to review because it technically doesn’t do anything wrong. It handles its core concept well, it has moments of fun, and I enjoyed the characters (for the most part). The ending is kind of bonkers, and I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not. However, there are parts that rubbed me the wrong way, little things that add up over the course of a book, and having read a few novels similar to this one before, I don’t see much that sets this one apart.

Well, other than the fact that it’s written better.

I guess I’ll end with this: If you haven’t read Ready Player One and want a clue-based mystery, this is worth a look. If you have read Ready Player One and liked it, then you’ll like this. It’s better.

If you have read Ready Player One and didn’t like it though, well, this may not sway you at all

Permission to Fail

About three months and some change ago, I finished my second novel. I meant to do a post-mortem on it right away, but finishing draft five feels no different than finishing draft four or three. It’s just by draft five I’m so sick of my stupid self that I can’t take another look without wanting to gouge my own fucking eyes out.

I guess it’s also better than drafts three and four, but eh.

The last two months have been awash in sending my query package to agents along with sample pages. So far I’ve had one bite and 13 official rejections, which is a nice ratio all things considered. It’s hard to really feel positive though; the one maybe cannot outshine 13 no’s.

It’s also worth noting that about four days ago I rewrote the first paragraph again. An editor’s job is never done and an author will forever hate his books regardless of how many times he or she looks at them.

I’m pretty sure if you LIKE what you’ve written, you’re doing it wrong. Stop being so positive. It hurts me on a philosophical level.

At any rate, come Sunday I’ll get up early, fire on my PC, toss on some heavy metal, and then go through another few pages of a literary agent database and send my stuff out. Next week will be a trickle of, “go away please” whenever as I check my email when I get home from work. Rinse, lather, repeat until a year has passed.

Fun fact: This whole endeavor causes me to grind my teeth at night. I try to overcome stress with a constant stream of self doubt and loathing, but I just can’t shake the little hope I have every time I check my email when I get home. With that hope comes dread, and that usually wins.

Why the fuck do we do this, guys? Good god. It’s insane.

Failure isn’t just a possibility; it’s an inevitability. The odds of getting picked up by an agent who can then sell my fucking book are so terrible that the only thing keeping me going is blind stubbornness. Well, that and spite. There are worse reasons to do something stupid.

Because at this point, hope can fuck right off. I’m sick of that scrawny little bastard.

However, despite the above vomit of negativity, I’m feeling pretty alright. See, I’ve had this novel idea kicking around since 2012, and as of two days ago, it’s starting to yell at me again. It’s very persuasive.

Back when I had the idea, I never thought I could write a novel. I was too inexperienced and needed to cut my teeth on short stories first, which I never got around to writing because I was a lazy asshole. It wasn’t until…what, 2014? that I wrote my first book because the idea would not stop yelling at me until I tried.

Two novels later and now I know the game…well, somewhat. I know that it’s fun if I do it right and that first drafts suck. I know that it’s at its best when I give myself permission to fail.

I did not do this for my second book. That was a big mistake.

I just got done penning myself a little note in a Word document. It reads thusly:

Just so you know, future self, it’s okay if this book is complete garbage. Honestly, it will be at first. That’s how this went the last two times, remember? So please, please, please don’t stress out about that shit and just have fun. This one needs to be fun. It’ll be the biggest shame in your writing life if this isn’t fun. Enjoy. Worry about quality later.

AND DO NOT OVERTHINK EVERYTHING WHILE YOU ARE AT WORK YOU STUPID CUNT OR YOU WILL RUIN EVERYTHING LIKE LAST TIME

I mean, it isn’t poetry or even good, but it’s important. It’s the difference between me approaching this thing with my head up my ass and me approaching this thing to have a good time and maybe tell a fun story.

It’s also the difference from me stressing out about quality if things aren’t going my way. It IS okay to just stop, to scrap a bad idea that isn’t working. I’m really, really bad at that because of that aforementioned stubbornness and spite, but hey, at least I know it’s an option this go around.

I don’t know if I’ll start this next book tomorrow or not. I want to, but I’m also drowning in projects and am not sure what will need to be cut from my life to work on this. However, sooner rather than later, I’ll pledge a hundred days of writing a day until I have a shiny new turd of a first draft. I’ll then spend a year polishing said turd.

Because that’s what writing means to me!

Travis S Taylor: On to the Asteroid Review

My history with Travis S. Taylor as an author has been a rocky one. I enjoyed his contributions to the four Looking Glass books by John Ringo, though I’ll acknowledge that those novels are kind of a mess. (I’ll also acknowledge that I’d love a fifth installment.) After those, I jumped into his solo stuff with One Day on Mars and The Tau Ceti Agenda and found both to be poorly-written disasters of childish ideas and one-dimensional characters. I never did finish The Tau Ceti Agenda despite my best efforts to.

When Onto the Asteroid showed up … well, it was either this or an abysmal vampire spy novel. And hell, I was glad to see an apocalyptic story that didn’t involve zombies—seriously, those things are everywhere now. Bring on the mass destruction!

Of course, hindsight says I should have just not read either novel and saved myself the pain of this 330-page slog. Whoops.

Let’s start with the plot: Some new company wants to mine asteroids. Sure. I can dig that! They launch a rocket, stick an engine onto an asteroid, and start driving it towards Earth. I can dig this too. The problem is, the engine fails, and now the asteroid is heading right for our little blue planet. It probably won’t end humanity, but it will destroy society as we know it.

As far as plots go, it’s not inspired, but it’ll do. However, it doesn’t quite end here.

Instead of NASA taking care of this asteroid thing, we turn towards a second company that wants to start a hotel on the moon. Gary Childers is a super billionaire philanthropist who loves space, and since he’s got more money than anyone needs, he gets a bunch of say in how this is going to go down. He also has a really nice spaceship because money. NASA? No. His pilot is going to the moon, even though there are more-qualified people for the job.

See, there’s this strange undercurrent throughout On to the Asteroid that super rich people without limits or rules will save the day. Yeah, that one rich guy set the asteroid towards Earth, but he doesn’t count because there’s a better rich guy who has our back. He’s the nicest person in the whole world, someone you just can’t hate unless you’re a crazy terrorist, and he’s also really smart or something too. The novel goes into pain-stacking detail to make you want to love him no matter what because he is a dirty, dirty Gary Stu.

And because he has money, he can make things happen faster and better since the government can’t get in his way. It’s why there’s going to be a hotel on the moon.

Politically, I don’t like this set of ideals one little bit. It would be nice if the novel had some balance to it, but the evil rich company who set this mess off are ignored so Gary Stu Childers can work his magic, care about everyone more than himself, and then almost die a few times because we’re supposed to care if that happens.

The sad thing is, Gary Stu Childers is the only memorable character in the whole novel. The spaceship crew all blend together into some kind of grey sludge, and everyone else on Earth quickly become unimportant unless they’re really rich. The crazy terrorist stands out by being a crazy terrorist, but he’s just as boring as everyone else.

His shtick, by the way, is that someone hurt his honor so he doesn’t care if the world dies as long as he kills the people who metaphorically wronged him. It’s a real shame too, because his wild-card element should have been tense and fun, but instead it was just another paint-by-numbers thing to find boring. The end to his reign of terror is also so anticlimactic that it’s actually kind of offensive.

Everything about On to the Asteroid is uninspired, but being boring is the least of this novel’s problems.

Travis S. Taylor is not a good writer. His prose is awful—it’s more bland than his characters, all of whom sound the exact same—he seems to thrive on grammatical errors like a vampire does blood, all of his action sequences are grotesquely childish in execution, and his use of hard science turns what should be interesting sequences into choppy pieces of technical writing that are best skipped over.

Baen puts a, “this is an unproofed review copy” warning before all of its .pdfs, but even if that’s the case, there’s no excuse for the amount of typos, grammatical errors, style errors, continuity errors, and general writing nonsense found in this novel. What I read is a second draft, not something that should go on store shelves.

I’m not the biggest fan of hard science fiction, but I will acknowledge that it can better a book. The Martian would not be compelling without the formulas and essays on botany. Plus, Andy Wier makes it interesting. Hell, the same can be said of the aforementioned John Ringo books, whose bits and pieces of particle physics are really quite fun, if not a little too overbearing.

In On to the Asteroid, the hard science is used in the absolute worst way it could be, covering up action with facts and then skipping past the action so we can get back to our boring characters on their boring journey. None of it is fun to read, none of it is enlightening, and all of it should be removed. It does nothing for the narrative.

On to the Asteroid is a bad book. It’s a poorly-written mess of boring ideas in a boring execution that I almost did not finish. I wanted to stop around the middle, but I figured there had to be some kind of little twist hidden near the end, since there was so much left to go. There wasn’t. Instead, a 250 page novel is dragged out past its prime, bogged down by needless facts, repetition, and about a thousand other writing problems that should not be in a product people pay for.

Or to put this another way: When I hit the last hundred pages, I wasn’t geared up to sprint through them like a good book would have me do; instead, I began to skim, reading every other paragraph in hopes of something worth my time to show up.

Nothing worth my time ever showed up.

 

 

Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence Review

Reviewers note: My review copy of I Am Providence was provided by Edelweisse for WeTheNerdy.com, but the review hasn’t gone up yet because [redacted] made a mistake. The novel releases August 9th, 2016

When I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever really enjoyed a who-done-it story. As soon as I know I’m involved in one, I of course try and piece the clues together to figure out who murdered whom and with what. The problem is, guessing right isn’t all that validating when you want to be surprised, yet guessing wrong usually leaves me feeling like I’ve been tricked in a bad way.

It’s all fun and games until the ending, when it’s either annoyance or disappointment. There’s a reason why I stay away from the genre.

The reason I didn’t skip over I am Providence by Nick Mamatas is that I really, really enjoyed The Last Weekend, his previous novel which came out earlier in the year. (Aside: Congrats Nick on releasing two books in a year! Damn!) I’m willing to take genre risks if I know I like the author.

I Am Providence was sold to me as a horror novel, though there’s little scare to be had. Much like The Last Weekend, it’s a character study on terrible people, or in this case, character studies. The plot takes place at The Summer Tentacular, a con for Lovecraft enthusiasts, all of whom are awful, twisted, and strange in their own delightful ways. The main characters are Colleen and Panossian; the former a newbie to the event and the latter a cynical writer who gets himself murdered.

Panossian’s death isn’t a spoiler since half the novel is narrated by him as fading ghost trapped inside his own dead body. He remembers everything up until the point where he was killed and his face was removed, but not that last crucial bit.

That right there is the only scary part of the book. It’s a terrible thought, being trapped in your corpse while waiting to be embalmed or even buried, stuck forever in blackness. It’s one of the irrational reasons I want to be cremated when I die. At least I’d get blown all over the place and get to view the sky.

The way Panossian handles the whole thing takes some of the scare away though. He’s obviously not happy about it, but much like Billy of The Last Weekend, there’s something a bit too fun about his depression and desperation that turns it from horror into a dark comedy. Panossian has a wonderful voice and tons of opinions, and since he has nothing but time, he lets his mind wander. He jumps from backstory to facts on Lovecraft to his opinions on those who attend the Tenatulcar every year (none of which are positive). It’s more fun than it should be.

The one thing Nick Mamatas can do without fault is create deranged, awful characters that you can’t help but enjoy and feel sorry for.

Colleen too is fun in her own right, acting as straight man in a sea of strange people, some of whom are outright misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, slightly crazy, obsessed, or some combination of all of the above. She acts as a good lens with which to view the event and the murder.

However, she doesn’t act as a good lens to solve the murder, which is a problem. While the cops question the event-goers—most of whom don’t care that Panossian is dead because he was a right prick when alive—Colleen takes it upon herself to help out. She does this by being nosey and all around annoying. The police tell her over and over to stop what she’s doing, and she rationalizes that as, “they want me to keep helping!”

Her attitude, and thus the bulk of the novel, drove me nuts. Colleen turned from a good reader stand-in to someone that was just obnoxious, which isn’t what you want out of a reader stand-in.

Halfway into the book, I was starting to grow a bit bored of the dynamic. Panossian makes a mental ass of himself, and Colleen upsets everyone around her by asking questions no one really wants to dwell on. Thankfully, there’s a nice little twist just when it’s all becoming unbearable.

But this is a who-done-it story, so we have to talk about the ending. I…didn’t like it.

The big problem is that there are too many characters, and once we’re getting a tally of all of the possible suspects, I realized I couldn’t remember who half of them where. When every character but one or two is unhinged, they all start to blur together. It really became a problem when a certain someone was looking like the prime suspect and I honestly couldn’t recall a detail on him.

The little problem is the whole thing wraps up a bit too cleanly. For a novel that’s really into Lovecraft (every chapter is named after one of his short stories, and there are enough facts about Lovecraft that this could be used as a source for a literary paper on the man), it has little to do with his stories as a whole. There’s nothing cosmic or scary, and the end answer was pretty unfulfilling.

I’m not sure if it would have been cliché if the end were some spooky, Azathoth-monster-dwelling-in-the-unknown affair, but it at least would have fit the framework.

And as strange of a complaint as this is, I kind of take umbrage with the way the book views these nerdy con goers. Yeah they’re all terrible people who you’d go well out of your way to avoid at a Comic Con, but I can at least empathize with some of their core fears and obsessions. I worry about not going anywhere with my creative endeavors, and I certainly obsess over nerdy subculture more than I probably should.

I Am Providence doesn’t always feel like it’s on their side though, laughing with them. No, often I feel like the novel is laughing at them. It makes sense within Panossian’s chapters since his are in first person and he’s a bit of a dick, but Colleen is handled from the third-person past perspective. Some of the nastier observations don’t feel like they come from her subjective voice but the author’s omniscient one.

I suppose of all the who-done-it books I’ve read, I Am Providence is the one I’ve liked the most. The setting, the tone, and the writing are all really good and enjoyable, and most of the characters are fun to observe from afar. There really is a lot to like. But damn, I disliked some of Colleen’s actions, and I wasn’t thrilled by the ending.

I suppose if you really like this kind of story, then this is a good example of it and one you’ll enjoy. If you’re curious, I’d say read the excerpts on Amazon. The first chapter is a good indication of what you’re getting into.

If you aren’t a fan of who-done-its, then this one isn’t likely going to change your mind on the genre.

Or flip a coin or something. I dunno. What do you want from me?